Paralleling the rise of the trucking industry and America's interstate system, there was an explosion of "roadrunner" music by the mid-'60s -- now considered "Golden Age" of trucking music -- complete with such new stereotypes as the pill poppin', coffee-gulpin', gear jammin', pinball-tiltin', load-haulin' hero with a heart of gold, doggin' it down the highway on his way back home. And, along with these seminal images, there is an elite group of country artists (longtime overnight radio host Dave Nemo often makes mention of the "Four Horsemen of trucking music": Dave Dudley, Red Sovine, Red Simpson, and Dick Curless) and record labels that will be forever linked with truck driving songs in their most classic forms: hopped-up, diesel-fueled tunes steered by rumbling baritones and the caffeinated hyperactivity of bluegrass banjos and twangy guitars. Though far from complete, this collection attempts to offer some of the better-known and most evocative examples of truck driving songs (some of which are being reissued for the very first time), spanning the years between 1939 - 1969.
The first song to champion the emerging class of professional drivers was "Truck Driver's Blues," written by Houston steel guitarist and radio repairman Ted Daffan, who recognized that jukeboxes in roadside coffee shops were working overtime to catering to truckers. On August 26, 1939, "Truck Driver's Blues" was recorded by local dance band Cliff Bruner & His Boys -- a swinging eight-piece combo that featured lead vocalist/piano man Aubrey "Moon" Mullican and electric steel pioneer Bob Dunn -- at a makeshift studio at the Rice Hotel in Houston. Described on the record label with the common swing categorization "foxtrot with singing," the 10-inch Decca 78 of "Truck Driver's Blues" was released just over a week after the session and became a first class coin fetcher en route to runaway sales of 100,000 plus -- big numbers in the pre-World War II era.
"Truck Driver's Blues" laid a blueprint for the new truck driving songbook, and over the next three decades the majority of trucking songs celebrated the happy-go-lucky lifestyle of the long-distance driver, a well-paid sailor on the blacktop sea, with a girl (and a hot pot of coffee) at every port. Attempting to cash in on the celluloid cowboy bandwagon, three members of the Jimmy Wakely Trio moved from Oklahoma to Hollywood in 1940 and within six months each had scored a recording contract of his own. Bassist Dick Reinhart was the first to record his own "Truck Drivers' Coffee Stop" for OKeh in 1941, with Wakely cutting a version for Decca that fall. The Wakely Trio's third wheel, Johnny Bond, soon signed with OKeh/Columbia but wouldn't make his mark on trucking music until a quarter century later with his memorable recordings and comic recitations for the Starday label.
Kentucky-born guitar-and-mandolin tandem Karl Victor Davis and Hartford Connecticut Taylor became one of the premier vocal duets of the 1930s as Karl & Harty, recording classic hits such as "I'm Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail" and "Kentucky" and making regular appearances on Chicago's WLS Barn Dance and later the Suppertime Frolic on WJJD. Their stile of old timey sentimental songs, as well as the prevailing image of early trucking lifestyle, is epitomized by their 1942 OKeh recording of Davis's "Truck Driver's Sweetheart."
In the independent label boom that followed World War II, Chicago-based industrial engineer Irving B. Green launched Mercury Records, in part to service the growing music market among rural minorities. Among the first country signings to the label was Art Gibson from Hiles, Wisconsin, who made his name as a regular entertainer on WNEX in Yankton, South Dakota, and later WHFC in Chicago. Written and recorded by Gibson, "I'm a Truck Driving Man" was released in 1947, and the spirited optimistic account of the profession was the first of many trucking songs released by Mercury, which would become home to Dave Dudley two decades later.
The free-wheeling, good-natured truck driver collided head on with the hillbilly boogie craze in the late 1940s, and no less than three different "Truck Driver's Boogie" songs were recorded between 1948 and 1951. The first, and probably best, of these was by the Milo Twins, Edward and Edwin Milolen, a pair of identical twins from Nashville with a sound that owed a hefty debt tot he Delmore Brothers (later songs by the same title were recorded by Jess Willard and Jim Boyd & His Men of the West). After a stint with Decca in the early 1940s, the Milos wound up in Hollywood by the middle of the decade, where they recorded the harmonica-propelled "Truck Driver's Boogie" for Capitol Records' Americana Series in 1948. A more sobering analysis of the red-eyed rigors of the road came from Joe "Cannonball" Lewis, a native of Cincinnati who yodeled his way through "Truck Driver's Night Run Blues," which MGM's Fred Rose produced in between recording Hank Williams hits in 1951.
In 1952, the year that jukeboxes first broke the 100-selection barrier, another trucking classic was born, when "Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves" was covered by six different artists, all working in California's fertile hillbilly scene. Written by Cal Martin, the first version was released by Doye O'Dell on Intro Records and featured both sound effects and a stinging solo break by young steel genius Speedy West. The profilic session ace also provided hot solos on covers of "Diesel Smoke" by the Sons of the Pioneers, Billy Strange, and Gene Autry, all of whom strayed from their standard cowboy fare to tell the tale of a trucker preoccupied by treacherous curves of the female variety (it also crossed over into pop territory with versions by fold music star Burl Ives and orchestra leader Tiny Hill).
After "Truck Driver's Blues" and "Diesel Smoke," the next true truck-driving classic would be the immortal "Truck Driving Man" by Terry Fell. Born and raised in Alabama, Fell had migrated to California in the 1940s to seek his fortune as a hillbilly star. After a series of records for the Fargo, Courtney, and 4 Star labels, Fell eventually signed with the RCA Victor "X" subsidiary and entered Tru-Flex Studios in Hollywood on February 17, 1954, to was his first sides for the label, accompanied by his band, the Fellers. Among the four songs that Fell recorded that day were both sides of his first "X" single, "Don't Drop It" backed with "Truck Driving Man" that probably earned the majority of jukebox play and would ultimately enjoy more enduring success and innumerable cover versions. Other trucking songs had saluted the pleasures of caffeine, but "Truck Driving Man" really poured it on, with its chorus directed at a truckstop waitress: "Pour me another cup of coffee, for it is the best in the land." The song also had the unusual distinction of referring to itself, as the narrator drops a nickel in the jukebox to punch up "Truck Driving Man" -- a device previously used on the Milo Twins' "Truck Driver's Boogie."
If one wants to pinpoint the origin of the "twang factor" in truck driving music, the reverb drenched bottom-string guitar licks (sometimes played on a six-string, or "tic tac," bass) that are often identified with the genre, a good place to start would be "I'm Coming Home" by the great honky-tonker Johnny Horton. Written by Horton and Tillman Franks, the song was recorded in late 1956 during the Louisiana Hayride veteran's initial hit streak with Columbia Records and reached #11 on Billboard's DJ charts. Although more comfortable fishing and hunting than driving a truck, Horton was a consummate storyteller (he enjoyed his biggest hits with the historic tales of "The Battle of New Orleans" and "North to Alaska" prior to his tragic death in 1960), and he is absolutely convincing on "I'm Coming Home," as he goes barreling down the highway in a lustful fervor propelled by Grady Martin's menacing guitar licks.
A few years later, a twangy shotgun guitar and Dave Dudley's lazy drawl would conspire to make "Six Days on the Road" the definitive trucking song. Songwriters Earl Green and Carl Montgomery (brother of singer-songwriter Melba Montgomery) were a pair of over-the-road drivers for Robbin's Floor Products in Tuscumbia, Alabama, who made a regular six-day run to Pittsburgh with a load of floor tile. With a guitar along for the ride, the pair penned a factual account of their experiences, as they consumed amphetamines ("little white pills") to stay away and tried to dodge ICC inspection stations ("I'm a little overweight and my log book's way behind"). The song's gear jammer jargon also refers to specific truck models ("Jimmy" is a nickname for GMC, while "White" was a popular brand now owned by Volvo) and driving techniques ("Georgia overdrive" is a slang term for neutral). Greene and Montgomery recorded a demo of "Six Days on the Road," which they slipped to Cajun singer Jimmy C. Newman during a visit to the Grand Ole Opry. Newman didn't think the song suited his style and had Nashville publisher Jimmy Key pass the tape on to their mutual friend Dave Dudley, a ballad singer/nightclub MC (and one-time pitching prospect in the Chicago White Sox minor league system) in Minneapolis, who stashed the song in his guitar case.
Born David Darwin Pudraska in Spencer, Wisconsin, Dudley had been pursuing a musician career since his baseball ambitions were crushed by an arm injury in 1949. After adopting the name Dave Dudley, he toured around the Midwest throughout the 1950s and had become a fixture on the Minneapolis club scene when he was hit by a car outside the Flame Cafe there in December of 1960. After nearly a year of convalescence, Dudley recorded non-starter singles for the King, Starday, Vee, and Jubilee labels, leaning towards a crooning style that showcased his rich baritone, but by 1963 he counted himself among the ranks of unsigned country wannabes. Frustrated by a lack of label interest, Dudley used part of his $14,000 insurance settlement to finance a recording session at Kaybank Studios in Minneapolis and planned to release the results on his own Golden Wing label. The session ran smoothly, and with three ballads in the can there was still enough studio time left to cut an additional track. According to legend, Dudley reached for the demo that he received from Jimmy C. Newman and the band knocked off the rumbling number in no time flat. The last minute addition also worked to the strength of teen guitar sensation Jimmy Colvard, who did his best Duane Eddy impression while defining the snapping guitar tone that would become a hallmark of Dudley's best records.
Although the song was originally selected at the B-side for "I Feel a Cry Coming On," it didn't take long for DJs and jukebox patrons to discover the white-knuckle pulse of "Six Days on the Road." The disc was a smash, reportedly selling close to 10,000 copies a day, and within three months the song and the singer had been picked up by Mercury Records. In the fall of 1963 "Six Days on the Road" peaked at #2 on the country charts and a respectable #32 on the pop charts. Dudley experimented with non-trucking material on his first few albums for Mercury, but when he finally succumbed in 1965 with the concept album Truck Driving Son-of-a-Gun, his fate was sealed. Despite much grumbling, Dudley returned continuously to truck-themed songs over the course of his long career, which has included releases for United Artists, Sun, Plantation, Rice, and other small labels. Today, Dudley no longer actively pursues the U.S. market but continues to release albums and tour throughout Europe.
The popularity of "Six Days on the Road" blew open the proverbial tollgates and trucking songs enjoyed their best-ever run in the mid-19602, riding high on the charts and truckstop jukeboxes as a new generation of country performers and label scouts tried to capitalize on the truck driver's colorful image. Operating without a Nashville office, New York-based United Artists was looking for a new country artist to replace George Jones, who had left the label in 1965 to sign with Musicor. UA's Music City scout, producer Kelso Herston, eventually settled on Franklin Delano Reeves, better known as Del Reeves, a product of Sparta, North Carolina, who had already kicked around the West Coast and released a series of minor chart hits for Capitol, Decca, Reprise, and Columbia. Reeves's debut single for UA was "Girl on the Billboard," which became the first truck driving song to reach #1 on the country charts in the spring of 1965. Co-written by Nashville steep player Walter Haynes and Hank Mills, the song expresses an over-taxed trucker's infatuation with the towel-clad subject of an ad campaign, as Reeves punctuates his lust with the doodle-oo-doo-do's that would become his vocal trademark. The song helped catapult Reeves's career to a new high, as he enjoyed a string of Top Ten singles and was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1966, returning to the top of the charts the following year with another trucking smash, "Lookin' at the World Through a Windshield."
Kay Adams had her only Top Forty hit in 1965 with the proto-feminist spunk of "Little Pink Mack," produced by West Coast legend Cliffie Stone for Capitol's Tower subsidiary. The prior year, Texas-born Adams had received accolades as Most Promising Female Artist at the first-ever Academy of Country Music (ACM) awards (Merle Haggard was selected in the male category). She followed "Little Pink Mack" with Wheels and Tears, an album of trucking songs presented from the perspective of a wife waiting at home for her truck driving man (it also contained a rewrite of "Six Days on the Road" entitled "Six Days a Waiting"). Adams was later paired with labelmate Dick Curless on an album of duets, A Devil Like Me Needs an Angel Like You, and both became featured performers in the Buck Owens All American Road Show during the late '60s.
One-time Johnny Horton producer Fabor Robison scored a few hits on his eponymous Fabor label (most notably Ned Miller's "From A Jack to a King") and made his bid at the trucking bag in 1964 with "Highway Man," a guitar-snapping state trooper send-up written and recorded by Curtis Leach. A promising songwriter, whose recitation "Golden Guitar" was recorded by Bill Anderson, Leach had his recording career tragically cut short when he was murdered in his Mesquite, Texas home in 1965.
Among the many highways and byways immortalized in trucker songs, the greatest infamy belongs to Route 2A in northern Maine, a hazardous stretch of two0lane blacktop that runs through the Haynesville Woods and was frequented by truckers hauling potatoes south to Boston. Noting the road's high fatality rate, Bangor-based copywriter Dan Fulkerson wrote "A Tombstone Every Mile" and pitched the song to local country performer Dick Curless, a Maine native who had secured a local reputation on New England radio as the "Tumbleweed Kid" in the 1940s. Fulkerson convinced the deep-voiced Curless to record "A Tombstone Every Mile" in the WABI television studios where Fulkerson worked (the eerie wind heard on the record was lifted from a sound effects album laying around the studio), and the two pooled their finances to create Allagash Records and Aroostook Music publishing in order to release the song independently.
"A Tombstone Every Mile" was released as Allagash 101 in late 1964 and Fulkerson and Curless set out on a thorough promotion tour of Maine's radio outlets that resulted in heavy phone requests throughout the state. As the Haynesville road claimed more fatalities during the harsh winter of 1964, "Tombstone" became politically charged and galvanized construction of four-lane Interstate 95 through Maine. When Allagash began placing 5,000-unit repeat orders with the Capitol pressing plant in Philadelphia, the parent company took notice, signing Curless to its Tower impring, and "Tombstone" climbed to #5 on the country charts by the spring of 1965. Although he steered away from truck driving songs during his stay on Tower, a switch to Capitol in 1970 reunited Curless (now distinguished with a black eye-patch and tagged the "Baron of Country Music") with big-rig material, as he recorded some notable trucker anthems as "Big Wheel Cannonball," "Drag 'Em Off the Interstate, Sock It to 'Em, J.P. Blues," and the lecherous "Chick Inspector," which opened a 1973 live album recorded at the Wheeling Truck Driver's Jamboree. After splitting with Capitol, Curless had numerous independent releases through the 1980s and recorded the inspirational Travelin' Through for the Rounder label shortly before his death from stomach cancer in 1995.
Jimmy Martin, the self-proclaimed king of bluegrass music from Sneedville, Tennessee, got his start as one of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys and performed with the Osborne Brothers before forming his own Sunny Mountain Boys in 1955. He was already an established Decca recording star by 1964 when one of his backup singers, Penny Jay, introduced him to a song she had written with a convicted murderer named Buddy Wilson. Inspired by a newspaper account of a truck accident, "Widow Maker" told the story of a young truck driver named Billy Mack whose heroic act of self-sacrifice made a widow out of "pretty Wanda Ann." Adhering to the trucker's code of "one life for ten," Billy Mack had swerved off a mountain road to avoid a pickup truck full of kids. The poignant ballad became one of Martin's biggest country hits, reaching #19 on the charts. The cover of the classic album that featured the song, Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys Sing Widowmaker, showed the smiling singer posed in front of a bright red International Harvester.
After starring on the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree and WNER Suanee River Jamboree in Live Oak, Florida, Virginia natives Jim & Jesse McReynolds had a brief run on Starday (home to the truck-centric bluegrass styles of the Willis Bros.) in the late 1950s before settling at Columbia Records, home of bluegrass superstars Flatt & Scruggs. Moved over to Columbia's Epic subsidiary, Jim & Jesse (and their band, the Virginia Boys) became regulars on the Grand Ole Opry in 1961 and enjoyed their biggest hit in 1967 with "Diesel on My Tail," a nerve-jangling speed trip sung from the viewpoint of the driver of a foreign compact car in the shadow of a roaring semi ("Can my compact take the impact? / There's a diesel on my tail").
Jim Nesbitt was a disc jockey from Bishopville, South Carolina, who recorded a string of topical novelty records for the Dot and Chart labels, beginning with "Please Mr. Kennedy" in 1961 and succeeded by an annual parade of talking blues such as "Looking for More in '64," "Still Alive in '65," "Heck of a Fix in '66," and so on. During his stint on Slim Williamson's Chart label, a feisty Nashville indie that later tasted chart success with Lynn Anderson's "Rose Garden," Nesbitt wrote and recorded the frisky "Truck Drivin' Cat with Nine Wives," the title track of a 1968 album that pictured Nesbitt cooyly reading a copy of Playboy magazine in a truck cab surrounded by nine mod babes.
Best known as a top-shelf Nashville songsmith, with classics like Tammy Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and George Jones's "He Stopped Loving Her Today" to his credit, Florida-born Bobby Braddock got his start as a keyboard player for Marty Robbins before relocating to Music City and signing a publishing deal with Tree International in 1966. Braddock also cut a series of records under his own name for the MGM, Columbia, Mercury, RCA, and Elektra labels, with little to no fanfare or chart success. Nonetheless, his non-charting 1967 MGM single "Gear Bustin' Sort of a Feller" stands as a classic trash talkin' trucker anthem, and has been covered by Dave Dudley, Del Reeves, and others.
Anyone born with a name like Johnny Dollar ought to be in show business. And that's just what the full-blooded Creek Indian from Kilgore, Texas, set out to do. The young Dollar became a popular attraction on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas and the Louisiana Hayride in Shrevport, scoring record deals with the "D," Columbia, Dot, and Date labels, where he officially inserted the "$" sign between his first and last name. By 1968, Johnny $Dollar had landed at Chart Records. Dollar's gleeful laugh and "big wheels rollin' back to Dallas" drive "Big Rig Rollin' Man," which was complemented by the singles "No More Truck Stops," "Big Wheels Sing for Me," and "Truck Driver's Lament." Although these songs had virtually no chart impact, their hot guitar-heavy production, alternating between a heavy bottom end and twisted string-bender leads, made them favorites on assorted 1970s trucking compilations.
Joseph "Red" Simpson is one of the great, overlooked heroes of the Bakersfield, California, country scene. Born in Higley, Arizona, the red-haired Simpson moved to Bakersfield as a child and played an integral role in the musical movement that spawned the legendary Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he drove a Good Humor ice cream truck while gigging regularly at the Wagon Wheel, Clover Club, and the Blackboard Club. Capitol talent scout Cliffie Stone was among the first to recognize Simpson's songwriting gift, and in 1962 signed him to his Central Songs publishing company. After Simpson had written several hits and sat in on numerous studio sessions for Buck Owens's Buckaroos, Capitol A&R executive Ken NElson signed Red Simpson to the label in 1966. At the time, Nelson was looking to cash in on the trucking music trend and suggested that Merle Haggard record a full album of truck driver songs, but the brash young star declined and Simpson got the gig.
Simpson's first Capitol LP, Roll, Truck, Roll, was anchored by the title track, a beautiful lament written by another Bakersfield legend, Tommy Collins (who would later record the song himself for Columbia), which barely cracked the country Top Forty. The landmark album also featured covers of "Truck Drivers Blues" and "Give Me 40 Acres," as well as four Simpson-Buck Owens co-writes. Simpson followed Roll, Truck, Roll with a tribute to law officers, The Man Behind the Badge, and then returned to truck-driving songs with Truck Drivin' Fool. Although he was scoring major hits as a songwriter with such Buck Owens classics as "Sam's Place" and "Close Up the Honky Tonks," Simpson's recording career seemed stalled by the end of the decade, and he was dropped by Capitol. His luck changed, however, when he was lured to a Vancouver, Washington, recording studio by Bakersfield refugee Gene Breeden, an independent producer who urged him to record an offbeat novelty called "I'm a Truck." Originally released on Breeden's Portland Limited Records and later picked up by Capitol, "I'm a Truck" became a surprise #5 hit in the winter of 1971-1972 and is the song for which Simpson is best remembered. Simpson would release a few more trucker singles for Capitol as well as the album Truckers Christmas. In 1976 he released "Truck Driver's Heaven" (an interesting variation on Tex Ritter's "Hillbilly Heaven") on Warner Bros. and in 1979 he released "The Flying Saucer Man and the Truck Driver" on the K.E.Y. label. Simpson continues to write and perform locally in Bakersfield, where he has a regular Monday night solo gig, and he recorded two duets with guit-steel master Junior Brown (who had a video hit with a remake of Simpson's "Highway Patrol") in the mid '90s.
The end of the 1960s hardly signaled an end to trucking songs, as the next decade offered the C.B. radio boom, Smokey & the Bandit movies, and the crossover phenomenon of C.W. McCall's "Convoy," which unleashed another torrent of trucker tunes littered with phrases like "10-4 Good Buddy" and "Bear in the Air." In fact, trucking songs have continued to appear on and off the country charts throughout the 1980s and '90s, earning a cult following and remaining staples of overnight A.M. radio networks and truckstop cassette racks. And it's a safe bet that as long as eighteen-wheelers continue to haul goods down America's highways, truck-driving songs will be along for the ride.
Jeremy Tepper, Owner/Operator,
Taken from press kit for "Big Rig Hits."